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On being an artist-teacher: Abbie's angle


This week, our guest contributor is Abbie Cairns, from in Essex, in the UK. She tells us about her current research in identity formation of artist-teachers and her 5 key takeaways so far in conducting this fascinating study. 

I am currently researching the identity of artist-teacher in Adult Community Learning (ACL), including how this differs in other learning contexts. Previous research encompasses general further and higher education and secondary teaching, while this research goes someway to define the role, it neglects specific characteristics of the ACL sector.

The term artist-teacher takes its definition from Thornton (2012), "...as individuals committed to personal practice as art makers and art teachers".

My research uses a mixed methodology, employing aspects of autoethnography (Adams et al, 2014), grounded theory (Glaser and Strauss, 1967) and life-story interviews (McAdams, 2012). This research will uncover the basic social process of being an Artist-Teacher, with the use of storytelling.

The research was inspired by my own experience of becoming an artist-teacher in ACL as the research was initially driven by my personal experience of the two roles colliding and then by the lack of research I found in the field when wanting to educate myself about the dual role. 

My lived experience was a lack of specific continued professional development opportunities for artist-teachers in adult community learning.

With my findings, I hope to implement changes in the sector regarding specific CPD and access to communities of practice for artist-teachers in ACL to benefit artist-teacher identity formation.

The research to date has included the formation of a cross-disciplinary historical, contextual and theoretical literature review and the collection of primary data from research participants with online surveys (artist-teacher = n46, managers = n13, learners = n13) and interviews (artist-teachers = n8). As well as autoethnographic writings. I wanted to share with you what I have learned so far as part of this study:

1. I have discovered more of who I am.

The research has made me reflect on who I am in a way that I never have before. This reflection has taken place by writing autoethnographic vignettes and in my art studio, where the simple question, "who are you" reverberates off the walls and into my art practice.

In becoming an artist-teacher I first had to become each as separate entities. There was a small period of time in which I was an artist and a teacher. This time existed at the start of my PGCE and ceased before the end of the course. Here I was an artist in one context and a teacher in another. There was no crossover between my art practice and my art teaching. Teaching within my PGCE placement was centred around teaching theory and learning how to be in a classroom with learners.

Upon entering the PGCE I was already an artist, to some extent I always had been and now I also had the piece of paper and photo in a very expensive gown and silly hat to prove it.

However, upon entering the PGCE I was not a teacher and there was much to learn. Much of it very quickly. This was knowledge that I found I needed to learn away from my artist self. I could not jump in, day-one and be an artist-teacher, as while I was confident as an artist, I had no idea what I was doing as a teacher.

2. What motivates individuals to become artist-teachers is much more altruistic than the published literature would have you believe.

My survey findings consistently show that artist-teachers biggest motivation (21%), and perceived motivation to teach - by manager (23%) and learners (24%), is 'to share their passion and enthusiasm for the subject'. While financial gain was deemed significantly less motivating (artist-teacher 11%, manager 6%, learners 0%). This calls into question assumptions that artists go into teaching for financial gain (Godfery, 2006; Williams, 2006).

3.  There is power in story telling

Through my chosen methodology I have explored the use of storytelling within interviews, getting Artist-Teacher participants to tell me the stories of their professional careers and breaking them down into chapters. Through storying telling their stories become my stories, become the readers stories. The interviewees then become a composite character in the story of becoming an Artist-Teacher in ACL.

4. Artist-teachers have a shared many shared experiences in life, including that arty children, become Artist-Teachers.

"I think. In the extent that I'm an artist now. I, I sort of feel I can trace that back to my childhood. Uhm, in that I've always loved making things, so I would be a little girl who was always making things up, and sometimes I sort of think not much has changed" - Artist-Teacher P

"You could say, you know you could say, "well, I was an artist from when I was eight years old doing stuff with plasticine" - Artist-Teacher K

"I think I've always been an artist-teacher. If I think about it, even when I was a 7-year-old in a shed designing activities for my friends." - Artist-Teacher A

5.  Finally, I've discovered that the more I know the less I know.

This research project started with the aim of outline artist-teacher identity transformation in ACL. As my research as developed, I have learnt that this will include looking at a whole host of other aspects of artist-teachers lives, from their formative years, support and motivation and access to subject specific CPD and communities of practice. So, like all good stories, this one is to be continued.

If you are an artist-teacher in ACL I would love to hear from you, please drop me an email.

Thank you Abbie for sharing your research and findings with The Adult Learning Hub audience. 

Has your identity been shaped in a unique way, working as an educator of adults, given the context you work in or the experiences you've had? We'd love to hear your story! Get in touch, if you'd like to be featured in an upcoming article!

Alternatively, you can also sign up to our mailing list, to get regular insights and updates in adult learning around the world. Or, even better, join The Adult Learning Hub (for free), to go into more depth on topics important to you and connect with other like-minded peers, in an safe and exclusive space.


Adams, T. E., Jones, S. H. and Ellis, C. (2014) Autoethnography (Understanding Qualitative Research. Oxford University Press.

Glaser, B. G. and Strauss, A. L. (1967) The Discovery of Grounded Theory. Taylor & Francis.

Godfrey, M. (2006) Interviews: Learning Experience. Frieze. Available at: https://frieze.com/article/learning-experience. (Accessed: 16 October 2020).

Gregson, M. (2020) Personal Communication. 3rd November.

McAdams, D. P. (2012) Exploring Psychological Themes Through Life Narrative Accounts. In J. A. Holstein, & J. F. Gubrium (Eds.) Varieties of Narrative Analysis. Sage.

Ofsted (2019) Educational Inspection Framework. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/education-inspection-framework. (Accessed: 21 December 2020).

Thornton, A. (2012) 'What is it to be an artist teacher in England today?', World Journal of Education, 2(6), pp. 39-44. doi: 10.5430/wje.v2n6p39.

Williams, E. (2006) You Can't Teach Art Without Getting Paint On Your Hands. Tes. Available at: https://www.tes.com/news/you-cant-teach-art-without-getting-paint-your-hands. (Accessed: 02 October 2020).